Jaime Garcia on his Recovery and Beyond

St. Louis Cardinals rookie left-hander Jaime Garcia talks about coming back from his Tommy John surgery and what might be ahead.

The St. Louis Cardinals are reeling, having lost seven of their last ten while their five-game lead in the National League Central Division has eroded to just a half-game. Their worst fate yet was being swept this week by the lowly Houston Astros despite having started three veteran pitchers at home, Brad Penny, Kyle Lohse and Chris Carpenter.

 

On Friday night at second-place Cincinnati, just one-half game behind St. Louis, rookie left-hander Jaime Garcia is being called upon as a stopper – to stop the bleeding.

 

It is an amazing turn of events from just 90 days earlier. By the time the 23-year-old reported to Cardinals spring training camp in Jupiter, Florida in mid-February, his pitching coach and manager, Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa, respectively, had made it clear on multiple occasions that Garcia would be better served to return to Triple-A Memphis this season.

 

Coming off Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in August 2008, Garcia returned late last season to make nine very effective minor league appearances. Yet, the Cardinals braintrust wanted to protect their young star through fewer and less stressful minor league outings here in 2010.

 

Garcia blew those plans out of the water by pitching so well in spring training (3.00 ERA, 20:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24 innings) and with such poise that La Russa and Duncan had no choice. The native of Reynoso, Mexico would be their fifth starter. 

 

In his six regular season starts since, Garcia has been better than anyone expected.

 

The Cardinals' 22nd-round pick in the 2005 draft is among the rookie pitching leaders in the National League in almost every category. His 1.18 ERA is a full run better than the second-place hurler. Garcia's three wins are tied for the league lead and he is second in both strikeouts with 30 and opposing batting average at just .195.

 

Garcia is attributing a part of his early season success to an improved outlook toward his pitching.

 

"Mentally, I am a totally different guy," he told me this past week.

 

Even so, Garcia did not necessarily expect to be so consistently good coming off surgery.

 

"At the time (of the procedure), they told me I would be able to pitch in one year, but recovery is different for different guys," Garcia said. "I was told that I would feel better sometimes than others and that some guys take as much as two or two-and-a-half years to get all the way back."

 

Injury expert Rick Wilton of Baseball-Injury-Report.com reaffirms the individuality of recovery times while acknowledging there are standard guidelines.

 

"Every pitcher is different," Wilton explains. "As of right now, a starter needs 12-14 months to recover and be able to start a game and work at least five innings. The area of improvement in recovery time appears to be with relievers. They can come back in 11 months (see Toronto's B.J. Ryan, for example), mainly because they don't have to build up their stamina as much as starters do."

 

Garcia seems to have stamina out of the gate as he is consistently getting into the back end of his games. Having done even better than the textbook quality start each outing, Garcia has gone six or more innings and allowed two or fewer runs all six times out in 2010. (The quality start measurement is three or fewer runs yielded.)

 

In fact, Garcia is only one of three MLB rookies since at least 1952 to begin a season with six or more of these games. The record over that time is eight, co-owned by Fernando Valenzuela of the 1981 Dodgers and Joe McIntosh of the 1975 Padres.

 

Though some have expressed concern over Garcia's projected workload, Wilton sees 18 months as the typical "return to normal" time for recovering hurlers. It has now been 21 months since Garcia went under the knife.

 

"Generally, a pitcher is fully recovered roughly 18 months after the surgery, including regaining full arm strength," Wilton said. "There does not appear to be any concerns over maximum workload with pitchers once they get close to that 18 month timeframe."

 

Case in point is one of the National League's top young starting pitchers who had been on exactly the same Tommy John trajectory as Garcia, 12 months ahead, with spectacular results.

 

Florida's Josh Johnson had his TJS in August 2007 after pitching almost the identical number of innings as Garcia the year prior to their respective surgeries (157 vs. 155). In 2009, Johnson's first season back, he made 33 starts and threw 209 innings for the Marlins. The now-26-year-old right-hander went 15-5 with a 3.23 ERA and earned a berth on the NL All-Star team last season.

 

Undoubtedly, the Cardinals would be delighted with similar results from Garcia in 2010.

 

To be able to carry that kind of load means Garcia has to remain alert as to his physical condition. One current area of Jaime's focus is on monitoring his body and being ready to adapt.

 

"I may get to the point where I am not stiff and tight in cool weather," Garcia explained. "I am finding a routine that works for me."

 

With an ace like the 35-year-old Carpenter in his clubhouse, the owner of a Cy Young Award and a former Tommy John patient himself, it was not surprising that Garcia asked the veteran for guidance.

 

As one might expect from the no-nonsense Carpenter, his advice was clear and straight-forward.

 

"I simply told Jaime to make sure on days when he is sore – because there WILL be days he is sore – to make sure he takes it easy," Carpenter said.

 

Garcia acknowledged receipt of the message and is taking it to heart, yet there is the glimmer of hope that he might even be better down the road. He is aware that some have reported increased velocity several years after the procedure, but isn't necessarily expecting it.

 

"My velocity might get two miles per hour higher later, but if not, I am very pleased with my results," he concluded.

 

Cardinals fans certainly agree.

 

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog.

Follow Brian on Twitter.

 

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